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On Wednesday September 28 Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt introduced the       SAGE Pilot program and its planned application in ANU. The self-review and reform initiative launched by Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) – of which Schmidt was a Founding co-Chair – ultimately aims to create gender equity in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine (STEMM) fields.

Based on the Athena SWAN program in the UK, the SAGE Pilot program in Australia pushes involved institutions to implement reforms to increase gender equity. It rewards successful institutions with the prestige of attaining a high gender equity rating, and in the original UK program, medical research funding was contingent on gaining higher levels of Athena SWAN accreditation.

Dr Saraid Billiards, SAGE’s Head of Strategy and Engagement, recognised that the SAGE Pilot does not currently plan on tying research funding to gender equity progress, but cautioned that SAGE experts would need to first ensure that the same framework would work in Australia.

The SAGE Pilot program also requires institutions to implement policies reducing barriers for transgender and Indigenous researchers, researchers with disabilities, and induces the institution to engage with intersectional issues.

Schmidt expressed hope that the ANU, since officially undertaking the project earlier in September, would be able to combat gender inequality in the University through the initiative. He labelled it a “systemic problem” and its manifestations, particularly the steep numerical drop-off between female STEMM students and female researchers, pose “an existential risk to academia.”

He stated, “gender equality is important precisely because one half of the population is women, but only 25% of professors are women… there is clearly a barrier at this institution, and at others in Australia.”

The problem, often illustrated as a “scissor graph”, sees the number of women undergraduates in STEMM as slightly higher than men. However, as academic stages progress from honours, to postgraduate studies, and to researcher positions, the number of women drops significantly, while the number of men in these later positions rises. What results is a high proportion of men in higher research positions, and substantially fewer women.

One female academic who Woroni spoke with prior to the SAGE announcement acknowledged the existence of the phenomenon at ANU. She observed her own Research School of Physics and Engineering as “not particularly bad… but not good either” in terms of gender balance. The Research School of Chemistry was an area she described as worse.

While she felt blatant sexism was uncommon, she highlighted cases of subconscious gender bias in ANU and in other institutions, such as inappropriate comments, objectifying jokes, and assigning pastoral care and outreach roles to female staff members.

The academic also found that small groups around her School had a “laddish mentality… kind of like a boys club.” Such “micro-cultures”, according to the researcher, were “tough for women to integrate into… and can be really intimidating to a lot of women.”

Additionally, she lamented that Physics students generally don’t see a female lecturer until third-year, based on her own observations. Furthermore, Head of Department meetings at the School were often dominated by men.  

Billiards hoped the adoption of the pilot by ANU and other institutions would be “the beginning of instilling systematic change throughout Australia.”

While recognising severe biases against women – motherhood “penalties”, increased teaching loads for women – she also stated that the same dynamics could impact men as well. She noted that men could be pressured to take more work hours, and stigmas still prevent men from staying home to take care of family.

Modelled after, but not mirroring, the Athena SWAN program, the SAGE pilot at ANU would begin with an extensive self-review, implementation of policy reform, and continuous evaluation of progress in a four-year action plan. Members of SAGE would evaluate progress externally.   

Additionally, she reported that the Department of Innovation has pledged $2 million to enact the program, from 2016/2017 to 2019/2020.

Integration of students into the largely staff-centred pilot is also a concern. After being questioned by an attendee, Schmidt stated that the action plan developed by ANU in the future might include students into the scheme, and make their engagement required for higher accreditation.

Commenting on this, Emily Campbell, Fifty50 co-President, said it was “good news to us, and Fifty50 would love to contribute not only to the assessment stage but also developing action plans.”

Campbell described the SAGE Pilot as a “much needed initiative” and hopes the ANU will “participate proactively during all stages of the accreditation.” This is especially important as Fifty50 considers gender inequities in academia as detrimental to the student experience.

“One clear example of this is the lack of females in leadership positions, especially in STEM. There also exists a culture of meritocracy that is based on metrics, competition and reinforcing of gender stereotypes that can pervade their interactions with students. When considering post-graduate students, the pipeline into academia has a lot of issues, job security and parental leave are concerns for both women and men, and the behaviour of and culture created by supervisors is really influential.”

Regardless, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience) Richard Baker stated the program was still in “very early days.” Billiards also noted “you can’t have institutional change if you just focus on STEMM.”

Schmidt signalled his desire for similar initiatives across other colleges. He argued, “inequity is not just a problem in the Sciences – it actually goes across the whole university.”